Food Bloggers Are Ruining the Restaurant Business?

Food bloggers are ruining the restaurant business. Eventually something will have to be done about the power of the internet. A bad review from a blogger who had a bad meal has the same power on the internet as a good review from a respected newspaper food critic.

Nah. Just kidding. Those are not my words. I omitted quotation marks from the statements in the first paragraph to increase the impact. Those are all sentiments expressed to me recently by a young talented Houston chef. I was on my second visit to the restaurant and had asked to be seated alone in the bar. If possible, I prefer to sit alone so my camera and flash, if necessary, don’t interfere with others’ enjoyment of their meals. I had really enjoyed most of my meal at the restaurant the previous week.
I desperately wanted to write a review to spread the word about what I expected to be a fun exciting place to eat. But one dish bothered me. The dish was the reason I had gone to the restaurant in the first place. It had bothered me enough that I was willing to pay for it twice to prove to myself that the skill displayed in the preparation of the rest of the meal carried over to the focus of my visit. I am deliberately being vague about the restaurant, its owners, its chef, and the dish.
The (courteous) server commented that I had “ordered an awful lot of food for one person.” I knew that I had been busted, as my camera was on the chair beside me. Shortly after I stuffed a reassuringly tasty bite of the subject entrée into my mouth, an “owner” appeared across the bar from me and asked me what I was doing. I introduced myself and explained the situation, assuring him that I was very pleased with a visit to the restaurant the previous week but wanted to try a particular dish again to confirm that my original thoughts were incorrect and to photograph it for a review. I also told him that I was impressed and intended to say so. He let me know that the restaurant likes to control what is said or shown about it in the press and doesn’t generally allow reviewers to do what I was doing, but that he was making an “executive decision” to allow me to do a review. I thanked him for his cooperative kindness to me (I’d already had the experience. I liked the food and already had the photographs in my camera). 

The management, however, wasn’t through with me yet. The chef/co-owner came out to my side with arms crossed and explained that there had been hundreds of reviews written (“350”) about them and that everyone was a critic these days. I was then chewed out for not sending the subject dish back on the night I was there in the first place. Sorry! I may write about my meals, but I pay for my food. I am a customer, and if I want to pay twice for a meal to confirm whether my first experience was an anomaly, that’s my right (isn’t it?). While I was being taken to task by this thirty-something culinary phenomenon, I was thinking “I’ve been a published writer/photographer, traveling and dining for a living for over 35 years now and my first article about food/travel was published before this chef was born.” My ego isn’t served by writing reviews to drive diners away from restaurants I consider not to be up to my standards. I write reviews about restaurants I like and attempt to guide others to enjoy a similar experience. After all, it’s no more than my opinion, is it not? I believe that anyone reading my reviews will agree that I don’t take myself nearly as seriously as I take my food and restaurant observations.

One thing I DO know about the Internet and bloggers, who benefit the foodservice industry here, is this: in a metropolitan area with over 12,000 foodservice licenses, restaurateurs/chefs are pretty lucky to be reviewed in the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Press, or any other print medium in their first year or two in operation. They can thank their makers if Alison Cook or Katharine Shilcutt makes it around to them early in their careers, due to their heavy workload. However, while they’re waiting, do you think they’d mind if I say a few good words about them? God knows that if I am unhappy with my meal, I’m not going to waste my time and web space writing an article. And I’m not going to waste a reader’s time by warning him/her to stay away from a restaurant when I have a better suggestion (in my opinion) anyway.
Anthony Bourdain once pointed out that this new crop of food bloggers is no worse than the “doddering old farts” currently writing as newspaper and magazine critics today. That’s certainly not the case in Houston, as our most widely read print media food writers are younger and less pompous –oh, yes, and they’re mostly female… and they write with humor and perspective. They hardly fit Bourdain’s characterization. Thus a “doddering old fart” must be a man… some priggish fop with a wine tasting spoon around his neck. 

By the way, in this day and age, even our print media food writers are also bloggers. I suggest that restaurateurs and chefs accept the fact that overall, food bloggers are good for their businesses. They should embrace the fact that this phenomenon will likely never change, except to grow. Readers consider the source when reading a reviewer’s opinion… I suggest that restaurateurs and chefs do, also. After all, it’s just one person’s opinion, isn’t it?
In the words of Houston food blogger, Albert Nurick of H-Town Chow Down, “We eat almost every day.” No one realizes what a chore it is to churn out a steady stream of articles (print OR blog) about food. You have to kiss a lot of frogs –or scarf many frog legs — to meet a prince.

Orleans Seafood Kitchen

Some of my best finds are when I drop in somewhere for a quick bite (lunch before golf) and realize that I had better go get my camera out of the car.  From the street, I would have thought it was a multi-location operation.  
 It has the slick look of a concept created with a lot of restaurant marketing and designing experience behind it, yet with no earmarks of any existing large chains I am aware of.  In 2007, Marcus Payavla and Chance Comstock were co-workers in a large restaurant and they, like many chefs and managers of restaurants, had a dream of working together in their own Cajun restaurant and finally went for it with Orleans Seafood Kitchen.  Décor in the restaurant is very New Orleans and signs hanging from the ceiling took me back to my many visits to the Crescent City.  I was introduced to oysters on the half-shell by my father at the Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans in November 1957 and a sign near Orleans’ oyster bar here was somewhat comforting.  Homage is paid to other Nola landmarks, also, such as Central Grocery (They serve Muffalettas here, by the way).  It’s pronounced “ahw-leenze” and it’s out the Katy Freeway in a shopping center between Fry Road and Mason Road.
Food is seriously Cajun and is ordered at the counter. Sample plates of popular dishes are lined up for inspection.  While I tried the dishes that I normally associate with my forays into Cajun country… mostly fried, the menu runs the gamut… fried shrimp, fried crawfish and alligator, etouffee, gumbos, crabs, sautéed and broiled fish and of course, boiled crawfish… my hunger turned into curiosity and I was powerless to order, overwhelmed by the options. However, with a line behind me, I solved the problem by ordering several items with the idea that I would take a bunch home for my wife to sample (I had it refrigerated at the golf club for 4 ½ hours).  
Seafood Platter
We started with a fried Seafood Platter, which was quite enough for two people to share (not that we did).  Fried shrimp, crawfish, catfish, stuffed shrimp… more than I expected.  For a more aggressive appetite, the Big Easy Platter is a seafood platter with oysters and extra shrimp. Everything was excellent, but the star was really the Fried Catfish.  Huge… juicy… and crisp.  Of all bayou country staples, I tend to judge a restaurant by the attention given to its fried catfish. 
Fried Shrimp Po Boy
Fried Soft Shell Crab Po Boy
Po boys are a necessity in a restaurant of this type and we ordered a Fried Shrimp Po Boy and my all-time favorite… a Fried Soft Shell Crab Po Boy.  I’m always wary when the menu says “Market Price”, but I was very surprised when the large perfectly fried crabs in a restaurant are priced less than I paid last week for fresh, uncooked ones at my fish monger. I would consider this a must-order when soft shell crabs are available.
Seafood Gumbo
I just said that I judge a Cajun restaurant by the catfish… but now that I think of it, I judge it by the color of the roux in the gumbo.  As I prefer Cajun gumbo to Creole gumbo (which is frequently found in New Orleans), I was happy that the roux in the Chicken and Sausage Gumbo… or, the Seafood Gumbo that I ordered was the milk chocolate color I love. The gumbo here is as good as that I have had in south Louisiana.  Frankly, gumbo is only as good as what you grew up eating and I was lucky enough to have grown up eating gumbo that tasted like this.
Shrimp and Crab Campeche
The Shrimp and Crabmeat Campeche cocktail is cool and refreshing and the shrimp aren’t overcooked as they sometimes are with boiled shrimp (They have that perfect “rebound” to the bite).  The sauce is spicy, as you would hope, but not hot.  Avocado, roasted jalapeños and lime juice complement the dish.
Boiled Crawfish
This time of year, Boiled Crawfish are on everyone’s menu and these at New Orleans Seafood Kitchen are, as they should be, served with potatoes and corn on the cob and I congratulate the chef for seasoning them enough to be interesting… but not so much to be oppressive. 
Pecan Crusted Trout

While the restaurant honors the seafood of the Gulf of Mexico, there are dishes such fresh water Pecan Crusted Trout with a rich buttery sherried Decatur Sauce with crabmeat and shrimp that is simply delicious.

Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this place is all about fried foods… sauteed and broiled dishes with sophisticated sauces are a source of pride in this kitchen, too.

Now, Orleans Seafood Kitchen is NOT inside the loop, but in my opinion, it’s worth the short drive, a couple of exits past Highway 6 on the I-10 feeder street at Westgreen Boulevard exit between Mason and Fry Road.

20940 Katy Freeway, Suite G
Katy, Texas 77449

Tel 281.646.0700
Fax 281.646.0120

El Real Tex-Mex Café

My blog only exists to inform readers about places I like rather than where NOT to eat.  I waste no time and web space on bad food… poor service or on invalid concepts. Writer/Tex-Mex scholar Robb Walsh, Chef Bryan Caswell and restaurateur Bill Floyd have collaborated to open El Real Tex-Mex Café on lower Westheimer in Houston in the old Tower Theatre location.  In mentioning that it is in the old Tower Theatre, it should be mentioned that this is a remarkable “saving” of a Houston landmark… and one of the historic Texas-born Interstate Theaters.  The restaurant has been the darling topic of local foodies for months and now, is being judged on its substance.  I had lunch there to check it out and see if it jogs memories of my childhood and I believe it’s worth writing about. 

Growing up in Texas in the early 50’s, my parents packed us into the car (one of our two 1950 Fords) two or three times a year,  rolled the windows up in the rain or cold and chain-smoked us down to Harlingen, Raymondville, Brownsville and beyond.  Trips to “the valley” were frequent, as our aunt, uncle and cousins lived there.  “Mexican” food out was always on the agenda and I remember vividly the colorful chairs in the restaurants across the border, as well as my meals there.  I think I have adequate perspective to talk about a restaurant that is selling “vintage Tex-Mex food”.   

Colorful chairs from Felix
Houston restaurateur/community leader Felix Tijerina felt the same way about colorful furniture in Mexican restaurants in his now-closed Felix Mexican Restaurant and Walsh has restored the chairs from that restaurant for El Real. Plus-sized photos of Houston Tex-Mex pioneers Tijerina, Ninfa Laurenzo and Leo Reynosa adorn the walls in the spaces left uncovered by the HUGE screen TV that plays vintage western movies non-stop.
Posole

On weekends in Houston taquerias, Mexican families flock to enjoy Posole, a pork and hominy stew with a rich broth and garnished with sliced radishes, cilantro, chopped fresh jalapenos and onions… and a generous squeeze of lime juice.  El Real offers it daily and the green (chile verde) version offered on the menu is hearty and tasty.  It has nothing to do with my childhood, as I never even heard of it until I started traveling in Mexico to write about regional cuisines in my 20’s, and then I became fond of the Posole Rojo (or red chile version).  Posole Verde, as served at El Real is not available at most taquerias in Houston and is excellent. 

Lunch Cheese Enchilada Plate Special
If there is ONE dish that I immediately think of when I remember my Tex-Mex consuming childhood (I particularly remember eating it at El Fenix Mexican restaurant on McKinney in Dallas as a child). Cheese Enchiladas!  The Cheese Enchilada Plate at El Real is served exactly as I craved it when growing up. Enchiladas, rice and beans.  The waiter always had to say “Don’t touch… hot plate” to me before I tested him and burned my hand.  Always.  Finely-chopped onions are a necessity on it for me and I always generously dumped them over the bubbling cheese, chili con carne and chili gravy topping the enchiladas. While they aren’t automatically served with El Real’s version, they’re as close as the kitchen.  I give the El Real cheese enchilada plate an A-plus.
1/2 pound Beef Fajitas lunch special

Somehow, you always have to mention the Rio Grande Valley when discussing most Tex-Mex dishes.  Not too long after “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo popularized what are recognized as fajitas today (she introduced them as Tacos al Carbon) across the United States around 1972, I was one of VERY few gringos to cook in the World Championship Fajita Cookoff in Mission, Texas on the banks of the Rio Grande in the early 80’s.  Having eaten and cooked fajitas for over 35 years, I can tell you that The Beef Fajitas at El Real are as good as any I’ve had in Houston.  They were tender enough that I mentioned to diners at the next table that it was as if they had come pre-chewed. The marinade was not dependent upon salt for its flavor, as is so often the case today. I would have eaten all of my order, but I wanted to take some home for Sally to enjoy.

Puffy Tacos are Tex-Mex treat that I don’t remember seeing anywhere but San Antonio. I love ‘em and at the risk of appearing to write a puff piece about El Real, I suggest that you try them.  They are the authentic San Antonio item and the chicken ones I had were delicious.  Choose from chicken, piccadillo, or pork.  They’re much crispier than the standard, typical deep fried corn tortilla taco, in my opinion.  You’ll not find them anywhere else in Houston.

Traveling through Mexico, one thing that one notices is that there is a difference in the flavor of fried foods there that many restaurants here don’t duplicate.  It’s because of the use of LARD to deep fry many foods.  The first time I was in Puerto Nuevo, Baja Mexico and had the experience of Puerto Nuevo-style lobsters, I was shocked when I went into the kitchen for a quick lesson in cooking them.  The unique wonderful flavor of the lobsters came from cooking them in Lard! The importance of the ingredient is stressed in Walsh’s writing and they use plenty of it at El Real. Don’t shake your head… it’s where much of the unique flavor at El Real comes from.
Churros with house-made ice cream
Finish off your meal with Churros (deep-fried “Mexican Donuts” that originated in Spain) and El Real’s house-made vanilla ice cream with a sprig of mint and you’ll make sure that someone at your table orders them on your next visit.

Are you wondering what the big deal is about Tex-Mex food and why a restaurant might promote its food as “vintage Tex-Mex”? After all, restaurants claiming to serve it are now all over the United States… and certainly in Houston.  For one thing, from MY perspective, El Real harkens back to the days when the term Tex-Mex unapologetically meant a regional staple food genre… not a test of manhood. It was a style of cooking and dining that was the way entire families in south Texas ate most of their meals… and it was the fuel for the day rather than a contest to test the huevos of a man and his buddies. 

Upstairs for a margarita and Tex-Mex memorabilia

After your meal, don’t forget to look around upstairs through what amounts to a Tex-Mex Houston museum. Photos and items such as menus, matchbooks and mementos of Houston’s icons of Mexican food, such as Felix Tijerina and Leo Reynosa are in glass cases and were curated with the help of Houston foodie Jay Francis.

El Real Tex-Mex Café is open daily for lunch and dinner at 1201 Westheimer at Yoakum:

Hours of Operation
Mon-Thu 11am-11pm
Fri 11am – 3am
Sat (Brunch) 10am – 3am
Sun (Brunch) 10am – 11pm


713-524-1201


Zelko Bistro… Lunch in the Heights

It “does my heart good” to visit a small business… a viable restaurant, owned and operated by a delightfully creative young chef who wasn’t born until five years after my first article about food was published in Houston!  Chef Jamie Zelko is young in a chronological sense, but exudes creativity and a culinary vision beyond her age.  In what looks from the street like many other small houses in the Heights, is Zelko Bistro… the creation of the former executive chef of the Lancaster Hotel in Houston’s theatre district.  Chef Zelko calls her cuisine “New American Comfort” food.

There have been many reviews written about Zelko Bistro, mostly good ones.  So, I am sharing one lunch experience from MY perspective.  Our first impression was that even though we entered a near-capacity restaurant, we experienced immediate seating and courteous, beaming smiles from all.  Just as pleasing was the fact that a wait person showed up immediately with our individual bottle of chilled water.  We were surrounded by many seemingly very pleased (and loud) customers. While that may sound like a negative, it merely reinforced the validity of the name “bistro” to us and we commented that this is a place to enjoy a fun lunch (or dinner… or brunch), or entertain a business client… but not necessarily the best place to quietly negotiate the details of a private business contract with someone.
Chopped Bleu
We started with the Chopped Bleu… a delightful chopped salad with bleu cheese, romaine, red onions, apples and pecans.  Fresh ingredients and the crispy salad was perfectly delivered on a chilled plate.  It had a choice of two sizes and the smaller was fine for one person. The apples and pecans gave the salad its character. The complimentary foccacia bread with olive oil and fresh herbs was the perfect mate for the salad. I guess this is the place to mention that when I met Jamie, after lunch, our conversation was filled with the descriptions “sustainable”, “free range”, “local” and “seasonal”.  Good things to hear from a chef.
Shrimp and Grits
My real love is seeking out local takes on regional American specialties… so, while there were several, I went first for one of my favorite “low country” dishes, Shrimp and Grits. If you don’t have Shrimp and Grits in Charleston, South Carolina, you must have slept through several meals. I would expect that extraordinary Houston Chef, Jamie Zelko would have her take on it. She did.  This one has all of the components to make it great… white cheddar polenta … apple bacon… sautéed jumbo shrimp and a sweet agave soy sauce to add contrast. To compare this with the dish I’ve enjoyed in the deep southeastern U.S. is not intended, as the phrase “shrimp and grits” describes the inspiration… not necessarily the “traditional” dish.  This creation is purely Jamie and her vision will become as valid a Heights Houston regional dish as its inspiration is typical of South Carolina.
Fish Tacos
While traveling around the northern Baja of Mexico, I frequently enjoy the (now famous) Fish Tacos.  I ordered the Zelko Bistro Fish Tacos. Again, a quite tasty… yet different (healthier) taco than the regional Mexican inspiration for it.  Cilantro mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, pineapple salsa served on griddle-heated flour tortillas.  Why healthier?  The fish in those in Mexico is frequently battered and fried mystery fish.  These are sautéed Tilapia… and served with very ripe perfectly caramelized plantains.  The two tacos are huge and sharable.

 A young diner next to us was polishing off a burger 50% bigger than her head and I wished I could have had a bite.  Another dish one might expect to be served in the South, somewhat east of here are Fried Pickles… and if there are a couple of people in your party, there are seven of them, sweet and breaded in Captain Crunch and served with Zelko’s house-made Ranch dressing… a fun way to start off your meal. 

There’s a Chef Jamie “take” on everything and some other choices are Captain’s Crunch Fried Chicken, Seared Tuna Salad, Root Beer Braised Short Ribs (if that doesn’t sound good, nothing does), Lemon Icebox Pie and even Funnel Cake. Along with her business partner/wine expert, Jeb Stuart, she has no wines that I saw above $40, yet an interesting selection of wines and beers to complement all dishes. A native Houstonian, Chef Zelko has worked with some of the best chefs in Houston, as well as New York… and has literally been in restaurant kitchens for half of her young 30 years of life.

Zelko Bistro is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner with brunch on the weekends. All (ample) parking is behind the restaurant.

ZELKO BISTRO
705 E. 11th Street in Houston, TX. 77008
Between Studemont and Beverly
Parking off Beverly
713-880-8691
Fax:  713-880-8693

Las Ventanas Restaurant and Cantina

I live in Houston where my neighbors and I used to refer to Las Alamedas as our “neighborhood restaurant”.  Back in early 2009, when it closed, we were disappointed by the loss of our nearest and favorite Mexican restaurant. George Sneider and his son Alex had provided us with an excellent Mexico City-style restaurant for family dining and a popular after-work meeting place.  It went away (not due to lack of business, but due to landlord disagreements)… and while I was whining about it, Alex was quietly working on a new restaurant called Las Ventanas (windows).  And windows it has! Actually, when I see the vast vistas in the restaurant and smell the aromas of the Mexican food, it reminds me of many homes in Mexico where the families have their windows open to the streets to entice their friends and neighbors with the aroma of the traditional family meals being prepared inside.
The tree-covered patio is the perfect place for dining on a Spring evening.
Las Ventanas is warm and comfortable and unlike many restaurants in Houston with patios… I LOVE this tree-covered patio… especially at night. The restaurant’s décor is casual yet elegant enough in a Mexican homey way to feel special for an important occasion in the evening.  I was attracted to a slightly raised nook with a table for six that’s sort of a “captain’s table” adorned with impressive Talavera pottery pieces… perfect for business entertaining or a family evening.
Ceviche Acapulco
As a travel/food writer specializing in Mexico regional cuisines, I seek out those authentic influences in dishes and I found the Ceviche Acapulco to be a perfect example as an appetizer.  Red Snapper with shrimp, lump crab meat, olives, and capers, all marinated in lime and cilantro was excellent.  While it was typical of some restaurants on the public beach in Acapulco, the olives reminded me of Veracruz.
Jalapeños Rellenos
True to my Tex-Mex roots, as a fourth-generation Houstonian, I never go to a Mexican restaurant without sampling the “poppers” (Jalapeños Rellenos) and these ranked among the best with fresh jalapeños filled with shrimp, queso fresco and cream cheese, deep fried and served with a cilantro ranch sauce.  While there may be a touch of Tex-Mex here, this restaurant celebrates Mexico and its culinary diversity… NOT its merging with the cuisines of Texas and the southwest.
Parrillada las Ventanas
Some house specialties are made for sharing and the quantities are huge, such as the Parrillada las Ventanas (for two).  Served with its own stainless steel warmer at the table, this combination of grilled meats includes Spanish chorizo, marinated chicken breast, 4 jumbo shrimp and beef tenderloin all seasoned with grilled poblano peppers and onions. The aroma as it’s carried through the restaurant to a table gets orders for it from those diners in its path.
Paella las Ventanas
For a family style visual treat, I recommend the Paella las Ventanas.  This medley of shrimp, clams, mussels, Spanish chorizo, pork and chicken is all cooked and served with saffron rice.  All of the items you would expect to find here are available, from Carne Asada to filets and Huachinango Veracruz (fresh snapper Veracruz-style). For me, the seafood and grilled entrees are destination items here.
Jumbo Sea Scallops
But sometimes, you want what you want and family-style isn’t your thing that day.  A good choice at Las Ventanas might be the Jumbo Sea Scallops.  Seeing a dish overcome its riskiness and delight with its perfection is what happens with this dish.  Taking huge sea scallops which must be tender and “medium” and wrapping them with Serrano peppers and bacon which must be “done” is the challenge met successfully here.  Placed, juicy and sweetly-caramelized around a cone of sautéed spinach and drizzled with a creamy Lobster Tequila Sauce, this is an entrée that you owe at least one taste of to your dining partner.
Pescado al Mango
Pescado al Mango is a delicate sautéed presentation of Mahi Mahi (Dorado) nestled on a rice cake then complimented with the sweetness of a Dry Vermouth Mango Habanero sauce.  Mahi Mahi benefits from this sweet sauce with the slight presence of smoky habanero to help you remember fondly that last bite. 
Tres Leches
We polished off the meal with two desserts that were coupled perfectly with an obligatory  cup of cappuccino.  Houstonians are no strangers to Tres Leches cake and Las Ventanas’ is as good… creamy… moist as any I have had in Houston.  It’s the cake that you eat and drink at the same time.  This one is light and soaked with their signature milk cream, topped with whipped cream icing and drizzled with Las Ventanas’ own house-made chocolate syrup.
Chocolate Chocolate Cake
Speaking of chocolate, some must have chocolate cake for dessert.  This one is so rich that they have to use the word “chocolate” twice in its name.
It’s not still in my neighborhood, but worth the short drive.  Las Ventanas is located at 14555 Grisby Road, one block east of Highway 6 between I-10 and Memorial Drive.
1555 Grisby Road
Houston, TX 77079
281-752-6990

Saturday Lunch at Philippe Restaurant and Lounge

A great cocktail is a cocktail one drinks without thirst… Philippe Schmit.
I might normally try a restaurant two or three times before writing a review.  However, that’s a restaurant review… this is a meal review.  We dropped in at Philippe for a quick lunch on a Saturday.  This is a lunch review.  This new restaurant has been opened for a month, so kinks have been smoothed out and we were anxious and hungry.  Handing the keys to a valet at noon for a restaurant that opens at 12:00 is a little early, but we hadn’t beaten the owners of a Ferrari and a Bentley parked at the door.  That’s Post Oak Boulevard for you. We went in anyway. Philippe is large (as in large dining areas AND living large).   Upon entering, the downstairs area is strikingly casual and contemporary… sort of Hotel Derek (Philippe Schmit’s former home) meets Kenya.  Passing through the jungle print bar area, we headed up a rather grand staircase to the dining room upstairs… still not too formal and rather comfortable. However, we DID wonder if there was too much emphasis on maximum seating at the expense of tummy room, as it was quite a task to get in and out of the booth we chose.
The wait staff was polished and management was solicitous.  That raises the comfort level substantially.  I don’t know why I do this food writing thing, as I’m trying to lose weight… not much, but SOME.  That was problematic only because the menu was quite inviting, so we ordered more than we really wanted… and I’m not sure that we ordered what this restaurant was created for.  We saw a monster burger being served at the next table and imagined that “have it your way” really means that here.  I didn’t think the restaurant was made for burgers, either.
Sherried Onion Soup
We started with a “Sherried Onion Soup” and it was as I imagined Philippe would have served it. Topped with a bubbly gruyere cheese and dark rich in color, the Sherry was key in the aroma of this first course… a really rich offering.  So far so good.  Very nice.
Carrot Soup
We also ordered a delightful Carrot Soup.  Visually inviting, this soup was another aroma treat with a touch of cumin and fresh ginger.  It was a toss-up between the carrot and the onion soups.  There was a “soup of the day”, but that’s never lobster bisque wherever I go, so I didn’t ask.
Smoked Salmon with Pumpkin and Swiss cheese quiche
The Frenchie was next and I hesitate to describe it as I can’t stay away from superlatives when talking about it. Tender smoked salmon was served with a pumpkin and Swiss cheese quiche along with a bed of garden greens and fennel. I just don’t think I’ve ever had a quiche that I could describe as “perfect”. Until now.  This creamy quiche had a shell that would have been worth ordering even if it were empty. The quiche truly made this a brunch instead of a lunch. Very nice.
Asian Chicken Salad
Next to arrive was a Thai chicken salad that, as tasty and creative as it was, had a slight flaw… its presentation. The salad of Boston lettuce, snow peas, soy beans and a Thai dressing all with an expertly cooked moist breast of chicken is brought out nestled in paper in a wooden serving bowl… then ceremoniously transferred to your plate on the paper.  The slight flaw?  The paper gets soggy and toward the end, you WILL get some paper in your mouth.  This is a very small thing considering the fact that the salad itself is delicious and the juicy chicken is perfectly cooked.  But while I recommend the salad, I also recommend that you order it sans paper.
 
Jasmine Crème Brulée
Desserts all looked good frankly, and we were too full to eat one but still ordered a Jasmine Crème Brulée with banana ice cream and a butter cookie.  Like a multi-media piece of art, we didn’t want to mess it up… but it was delicious.
I’m sure that Philippe is an experience in the evening and we’re anxious to give it a try.  As far as lunch is concerned, it’s highly recommended.
Philippe Restaurant and Lounge
Boulevard Place
1800 Post Oak Boulevard
713-439-1000


There’s Always Been a Christie’s!

 
There are some things that seem to have always been there as I grew up in the Houston area.  Living in Shore Acres as a child, the bounty of Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico provided most of the meals for us.  We loved to eat out as a family and that included driving into Houston to eat delicious fresh Gulf Coast seafood at Christie’s.  I remember fondly the location in the Medical Center near the Shamrock Hotel.  Providing seafood to this area for decades (before I was born), the first foodservice venture by this immigrant family was established by Theodore Christie (born in Istanbul in 1885). He started selling Fish Sandwiches on the waterfront in Galveston in the little food stand he founded in 1917.  The sandwiches were made with Speckled Trout in those days and thankfully, trout were plentiful, as after he moved his business to the Medical Center location in Houston, he was selling 10,000 sandwiches a week. 
  
 The famous Christie’s Fish Sandwich started it all
He also invented a couple of other things while he was at it… the Fish Stick (which became wildly popular nationwide in the 50’s) and then the locally famous Christie’s Fisherman’s Platter, a combo of various fried Gulf Coast seafood, which was copied everywhere.
An Old Postcard from Christie’s
Theodore’s son, James Christie moved the restaurant to the Westheimer location in 1979 (Thank you very much as it’s a few blocks from our home) and made it into the local institution it is today.  James,  Alexandra and their daughters Maria and Kathy are constant influences maintaining the good family name and the quality of the food.  James will be quick to tell you that there will never be an overcooked shrimp on his watch. 
A few years ago, I was at The Palm (across Westheimer from Christie’s) and I asked the waiter what kind of fish he had fresh that day.  He pointed out the window and said “We’re a steak house.  If you want seafood, go to Christie’s like I do.”
 Flounders are served broiled, blackened or stuffed with crabmeat.
Flounders are big deals here on the Gulf Coast and flounders are why we go to Christie’s.  They get them in fresh on Thursday and they are broiled, blackened and stuffed until they are gone.  They usually are available through Saturday night and when they’re gone… they’re gone until next week.  Sometimes regulars planning to go to dinner on the weekends call ahead to make sure that they are still available and even ask to reserve them.  They’re so big, they hang off of both sides of the platter.
 We enjoy the oyster bar area, as I’m a news junkie and the big screen TV quietly keeps cable news going during the day.   They sell so many oysters that you know that they are always going to be fresh.  
 There’s not an ounce of pretense at Christie’s and if you are worrying about what you’re wearing, you’re the only one.  Oh yes, they still sell the famous Fish Sandwich (adorned with lettuce, tomatoes and their signature sauce)… but today it is made with Red Snapper, due to limited availability of trout.   Outstanding – crisp, hot and fresh!  You can almost hear the breakers….
Oysters Rockefeller are the starter of choice at Christie’s.
 On our last visit we had the Broiled Flounder (as always) and Oysters Rockefeller served without aplomb, which the Christies serve topped with crisp bacon strips and the perfect amount of spinach to our liking. We ordered the Fish Sandwich to photograph, thinking it was going to be too much to eat.  It WAS too much to eat, but we ate it anyway.  And it took me back to my childhood. Thanks for the memories.
Christie’s Seafood and Steaks
6029 Westheimer
Houston, Texas 77057
713-978-6563

Ocean’s… A Place for Ceviche & Margaritas

Friday date night in Houston and plenty of choices for a light dinner after an opening at Darke Gallery, so Sally and I cruised several restaurants we had been considering trying.  We thought we had remembered reading something about a scallop ceviche at Ocean’s in Culture Map, but our memory was fuzzy on that.  At any rate, we stopped at Ocean’s…  a place for Ceviche Wine and Margaritas on West Alabama near Montrose.  I have to mention the fact that we were turned off by the sign in the parking lot that valet parking was $5.00 and seemed to be mandatory.  A restaurant in Houston doesn’t usually have to inform its customers how much to give a valet attendant.
We parked in a spot that God evidently had provided for us on the curb at the front door (now that I think of it, there was a spot at the front door for us at the gallery, also).  Five star day.  We were greeted at the door by the young attractive owner, Jorge Alvarez from Mexico City, and cheerfully seated by a hostess in a dining room that shouldn’t have had as many choices for us as it did. We chose a nice cozy table where we could have a quiet dinner.  Due to the name of the restaurant, we assumed that a margarita would be in order and Sally enjoyed the Ocean’s house margarita. 
Ocean’s Margarita de la Casa
I might have expected to see several different Magaritas in a place named partially after the drink, but according to Sally, the drink was delightfully tart, freshly squeezed and surprisingly akin to those that we get in Mexico (or, even Santa Fe), rather than the overly sweet versions usually served here in Houston. 
The vision of the anticipated scallop ceviche faded as we discussed the menu with our waitress and saw that there wasn’t such a thing on it.  No problem, however, as there were some tasty-sounding choices to enjoy. 
Lobster Sope
As a starter, we were attracted to Sally’s favorite citizen of the deep in the form of a Lobster Sope… a perfectly grilled lobster with black beans, sour cream, olives, mesclun, shaved parmesan with olive oil (underpriced at $16.00).  Nice starter.  We should have ordered two, though, as it has around 3-4 ounces of lobster tail and, as an appetizer, is too small for an entrée but you don’t want to stop with just one.
We learned that the ceviche descriptions don’t mention specific fish on them as they are all served with your choice of Yellow Fin Tuna or Salmon. 
Rasurado Ceviche
 Our first entrée was the Rasurado Ceviche with serrano chiles, shaved white onion, avocado, chipotle sauce, two house sauces, cilantro and extra virgin olive oil (for $14.00).  We chose salmon and it was a very fresh sashimi-grade cut that went beautifully with the other ingredients.  As the others are, it was served on a rectangular plate about 14 inches long. On all ceviches, the presentation is creative, crisp and beautiful.  They were also, incidentally, tasty (if not huge).
Sinaloa Ceviche
Next we ordered the Sinaloa Ceviche with red onion, olives, chiltepín chiles, white vinegar, a house sauce, avocado and extra virgin olive oil ($14.00). We were a little surprised by the fact that there wasn’t a Dorado (Mahi Mahi) choice for this one similar to the ceviches that we get on our trips to Mazatlan in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  However, again, it worked with the Ahi Tuna.  It looked a little Veracruzana in makeup, considering the olives, but was a delicious ceviche regardless of the name. 
Ocean’s Tower
We asked for something “off the menu” and were treated by what Jorge called an Ocean’s Tower with diced peppered salmon and an avocado and mango salad on a bed of rice with spicy mayonnaise. It also came with a jalapeno and a chipotle puree for sauces.  We shared this and both really enjoyed it.  The pureed jalapeno sauce added a really nice edge to the peppered salmon (This one would have been equally wonderful with a tuna substitution for the salmon).
Also on the menu are various Tacos and Tostadas with ingredients ranging from Filet Mignon to Diver Scallops to Shrimp, so those seeking a heavier fare (and scallops) will not be disappointed.
Prices range up to $28.00 for the Seafood Rissotto.
713-520-7744 
819 West Alabama, Houston, TX 77006

Mangola’s Italian Restaurant

Sometimes things happen to take you back to the past a bit.  Driving on the Southwest Freeway in Houston, we glanced over and saw Mangola’s on the feeder street. We used to eat at Mangola’s Italian restaurant years ago, and went for one thing and one thing alone.  Mussels in white wine sauce. There were other things on the menu, of course, but I don’t remember noticing them. Served in a big cast iron kettle between us, we were always well-fed and seemed to take some home with us.  I remember Mangola’s burning down, several years ago, but this was how I found that they had reopened some time ago.

Well, it’s a different experience now.  Not bad, mind you, but different.  It used to have the feel of a small Mulberry Street Italian restaurant in Little Italy… but now seems larger and more open since the renovation.  At any rate, we stopped in with our Living Social certificate and were treated like big tipping regulars.  New and shiny with white table cloths… but no fuss.  House salads,  served automatically with entrées are fresh mixed greens on a chilled plate with a house-made creamy Italian dressing on the side (again, automatically) in a non-pretentious little stainless steel cup. I didn’t get a chance to ask for the dressing on the side (which I seldom do, anyway) as I didn’t know the salad was coming.  So far, it was like eating in an Italian restaurant in the 50’s or 60’s before the trendy northern Italian restaurant invasion.
Mussels with White Wine Sauce
Sad news is that our waitress never heard of them ever serving a kettle of mussels in white wine sauce.  Damn.  That was what we came for.  “We DO, however have an appetizer of mussels” she said.  We ordered that and found that while the chef and the waitress had a memory lapse, the mussels and sauce were the same and it was good enough to make tears well up in my eyes.  Add the fresh garlic bread to “sop” with and the dish was complete.
Shrimp Fra Divalo
Next we ordered Shrimp Fra Diavolo and, frankly, were surprised at its depth.   Nice. Really nice.  The marinara was touched by just enough red pepper flakes to make your palate remember that it had recently done its job, but it wasn’t oppressive heat.  The shrimp were large and were cooked perfectly… springy to the bite and not even slightly overcooked.  The spaghetti was al dente and it was a truly delightful dish.
Spinach Manicotti, Mushroom Cannelloni and Eggplant
Where today would you find a combination plate outside of a Mexican restaurant? Had our next course not been 100% Italian, I would have expected Italian/Mexican fusion.  We ordered a “Baked Pasta Combo #3” comprised of Spinach Manicotti, Mushroom Cannelloni, and Eggplant.  Served in an individual baking dish, all was complimented by a rich red sauce and bubbling mozzarella and parmesan.  I was not hoping to find something to gripe about, but if I had been… this wasn’t it either.  Serious southern Italian comfort food, in my opinion.  I was worried.  This review was heading toward being a puff piece.  Maybe they would mess up dessert.
 
Cannoli
Dessert was a crispy Cannoli filled with creamy ricotta and topped with a rich chocolate sauce and shaved chocolate.  Our waitress served it for sharing and we did, with glee.  Followed by espresso (which I would have loved to have hotter… there, I found something served there that wasn’t perfect), we had a delightful lunch at Mangola’s. 
11786 South Wilcrest at Highway 59 south in Houston
281-498-6790

Caffe Bello Taverna e Pizzeria

I didn’t really plan to write a review tonight … it was my birthday after all.  Even a busman takes a holiday.  Somehow, though, I knew I was going to take a camera in when I handed my keys to the valet. It wasn’t the fact that there was a valet (the Vallones would have a valet if they opened a burger joint).  It’s just that Vallone Restaurant Group people, including the valets, all have that “way” about them and I knew that the “touches” were all going to be there.  So, I walked into the light and entered Caffe Bello Taverna e Pizzeria, the newest Vallone concept, and immediately felt comfortable in jeans and a sweater.
Bresaola
Perfectly fitting the colorful Montrose neighborhood it’s nestled in, Caffe Bello’s clientele are a cross section of Houston. It’s inexpensive enough to attract the neighborhood “starving artist-types”, trendy enough to comfort the well-heeled Tony’s regulars and best of all… has a menu creative enough to attract serious foodies.
Seated near the colorful and comfortably packed bar area, we grabbed a table where we could watch the indigenous neighborhood characters move up and down the sidewalk outside (That’s a show in itself)… even on a night when most Houstonians were staying home due to cold weather and forecast light snow.
On a menu that includes several artisan Pizzettas, or individual pizzas such as the familiar Margherita and Italian Sausage and Peppers, we chose from offerings that rendered the menu at a California Pizza Kitchen to that of a Pizza Hut.  From choices like Baby Alba Truffle; Baby Shrimp & Pancetta Fra Diavolo; and more, we started with a Bresaola, Pear, Tallegio and Italian Truffle Honey Pizzetta.  At once savory and sweet, it was perfect to set the palate for either direction we chose to go (which was both ways).
The Picolo (appetizer) selections suggest to you that you might be perfectly happy using it as a tapas menu and just grazing all night.  Chicken Wings Salmoriglio with a Mint Vinaigrette;  Meatballs with Cheesy Polenta and Pomodoro;  Zuppa di Pesce;  Calves Liver Veneziana with Cipollini Onions and Balsamico and over a dozen more starters that meld the Vallone family’s traditional southern Italian roots into surprising hybrids relevant in today’s fusionistic dining trends.
 Pulcinella
We split a Pulcinella salad with Frisee, Arugula, Sweet Basil, Fig, Candied Hazelnuts, and a Parmesan Vinaigrette.  The components of this salad were so varied yet supportive, each of the other, it was fun to jump around from ingredient to ingredient. 
Cappelletti
From the salad, we slid into Cappelletti, little hats filled with Truffle Scented Mascarpone on a fragrant bed of Sage Butter… then to Crispy Baby Artichokes where the star was a Lemon Aioli that had a surprising and gentle bite that made us polish it off with a spoon after we finished the artichokes.
Crispy Baby Artichokes
Entrees are, again, typical of Vallone Italian restaurant selections with no taste left unsatisfied.  From seafood to foul to lamb and beef, all are represented and we settled reluctantly on only three to pass around. Lamb Scottadita with Asparagus Pecorino (Charred medium rare unless you choose to ask that it be ruined) was tender American Lamb T-Bones.  
Lamb Scottadita
We were offered a creamy Shrimp and Calamari Milanese on Saffron Risotto which was an off-the-menu beauty created from always-available ingredients.  I suggest that you ask if this is available when you are in for dinner as it is a trademark of a Vallone kitchen to prepare seafood staples for the Mediterranean diet perfectly and two things a Vallone chef wouldn’t dare mess up are calamari and risotto.
Shrimp and Calamari Melanese
A key professional in every Vallone kitchen is the saucier and Caffe Bello’s cocina is no exception.  The star of the Roasted Salmon Barolo was its Italian red wine reduction and we would have ordered a “side” of the Sautéed Spinach that accompanied it, if we hadn’t already overdone it with the generous proportions on three shamelessly ordered entrees. 
Roasted Salmon Barolo
It’s not over till the future fat lady sings… but with dessert here, it’s definitely going be over!  While you can never go wrong with Elizabeth’s Chocolate Chip Cheesecake (requisite in every Vallone restaurant), we finished off the experience with a Berry Tart (fresh Strawberries and Blueberries with a Crème Anglaise and Berry Coulis in a Graham Cracker cup) and a decadent Chocolate OMG! Cake (the gooiest Tuxedo cake you will ever find anywhere).
Berry Tart
Chocolate OMG! Cake
Our host for the evening, John Silvestro was the consummate professional and guide through the menu.  When asked for suggestions, his empathetic recommendations always delighted us.
Caffe Bello
322 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77006
713-520-5599
Fax 713-520-5588
Caffebello.com

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